Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference — Paintings Session, May 15th — "The Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — Rescue and Treatment" by Carolyn Tomkiewicz and Caitlin Breare

Carolyn Tomkiewicz’s presentation began with a photo of a modest statue of Mary in the garden of a local church. It had been wrapped up against the oncoming storm—not by conservators, but by mindful parishioners. This protection had more in common with how you shield a plant from frost than how a museum usually guards against damage, but their effort and conscientiousness was rewarded when the statue survived the flood unscathed, a reveal that Tomkiewicz ended the talk with. These photos opened and closed the talk as a demonstration of how a community’s response, as much as a conservator’s response, is vital to the protection of the art in their midst.
Tomkiewicz begins at Westbeth Artists Residence, where studios and storage spaces in the basement were swiftly subsumed by the nearby and overflowing Hudson. When the artists were granted access ten days later, the salvage efforts began immediately. The rescue team—composed of the artists themselves, volunteers from AIC-CERT (Collection Emergency Response Team), and local conservation studios—took over the building’s courtyard and turned it into a makeshift triage center. Salvage operations rely on ingenuity: the team MacGyvered door screens into paper drying racks, applied toilet paper as facing for damaged paintings, used puppy training pads as blotters, and when faced with the unappealing prospect of leaving art unattended overnight, they stored as much as they could in a rental truck that they could lock up. Gaining access to indoor spaces at Westbeth improved the security of the artwork. However, as triage operations continued, more and more objects were brought to the team to be treated. The extent of the work to be done in those first few days never seemed to diminish, but the crew pressed on, even addressing the residents’ personal items as well as their art.
The Westbeth example typified an important part of the success of the Sandy response: educating artists on triage procedures to save their own artwork. This education came through including artists in the conservator-led salvage efforts as well as many informational sessions—specifically a well-attended public presentation at MoMA—and online support forums and resources. That AIC-CERT’s involvement was assisted by private conservators, public museums, and even conservation vendors who donated supplies, was what really propelled the Sandy response to be come an example of effective salvage outreach. Of course, few places worldwide rival the level of cultural saturation as Manhattan, but even cities and towns without MoMA should be able to construct a scaled-down version of this type of unified response within the local arts community.
The opening of the Cultural Recovery Center (CRC) in Brooklyn, run by FAIC to provide in-depth treatment at a secure facility, was the culmination of the volunteer effort to restore art after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Tomkiewicz discussed the treatment of three heavily deformed and flaking oil on canvas paintings at the CRC that required gradual-tensioning stretchers, humidity chambers, and a burnt-finger technique which utilized a lightbulb as the convex heat source. Given the type of damage Sandy left behind, she devoted special attention to the variety of ways to re-tension water distorted canvases, including Rigamonti stretchers and a “Gleitrahmen” (sliding frame) technique. Details of the treatments were published in the WAAC Newsletter Volume 35, Number 2 of May 2013, “A Tensioning Device for the Reduction of Severe Planar Distortions in Paintings,” by Carolyn Tomkiewicz.
She concluded her talk with the following advice: don’t store art in the basement in a flood zone!